Why the Pope shouldn’t come to Ireland now.
What would we do at all if we hadn’t the Catholic Church to lean on when we needed it?
Taoiseach Enda, who not too long ago socked it to Rome for its perceived failure to step up to the mark in the child abuse scandals, conspicuously attended the recent canonisations in St Peter’s Square and had a word afterwards with Pope Francis, even inviting him to come to Ireland. And Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, who so conspicuously closed the Embassy to the Holy See amid cheers from his secular constituency, has announced that (surprise, surprise) an appointment of a new Ambassador is just about to happen.
It couldn’t, of course, have anything to do with the coming elections? Or with the fact that while the young – who were always presumed to be anti-establishment and are now presumed irreligious – tend not to vote, while the great phalanx of older, traditional Catholics tend to turn up in droves on election day. Is it any wonder that cynicism rules, okay?
So let me be even a little more cynical.
Who would like to see Pope Francis coming to Ireland? Enda would, especially if he could deliver the visit just before the next general election. Eamon Gilmore would, as Foreign minister, because it would place a world focus on Ireland and provide millions of euro worth of free publicity. Leo Varadker would because it would bring thousands and thousands of tourists (sorry, pilgrims) to Ireland. And the Irish bishops would too because it would deflect from the many issues that they need (and are failing) to deal with and it would create a feel-good factor for religion and more specifically Catholicism after all the bad news of recent years. After all, with everyone seemingly singing from the same hymn-sheet, the atmosphere is ripe for another three-day party like we had in the autumn of 1979.
But who wouldn’t like Pope Francis to come to Ireland? Probably Pope Francis himself because even though he’s clearly a very personable and sociable man and would take the country by storm, such visits are not his style. He doesn’t like them, even though sometimes he has no choice – like with Brazil. And he doesn’t like them because they go against the grain of his firm and oft-stated conviction that he’s first and foremost the bishop of Rome, the first among equals.
Francis has made it perfectly clear that he wants national episcopal conferences to take more responsibility for their own countries and to stop looking over their shoulders to see what Rome is saying or even might be saying or even might be thinking. And he wants bishops to lead, to push out a bit from the shore, to stretch the boundaries, to take whatever tide is offered and not to lapse (as bishops sometimes do) into sullen and stolid silence.
Francis knows that there were two problems with Saint John Paul’s memorable visits around the world, including to Ireland in 1979. One was that they helped over-centralise the authority of the Church in Rome and in the person of the pope, whereas Francis is doing everything he can to decentralise it. Another is that the visits, hyped by the media, developed a cult of personality around the pope and Francis is rightly suspicious of that. The Church may not be a democracy, and we could be more democratic than we are, but its not a monarchy either.
I have to say I’m with Francis in this. The last thing the Irish Catholic Church needs is a visit from the Pope and an effort to relive the glory days of 1979, which everyone imagined would lead to a new spring for the Church but which we now know was the prelude to a Siberian winter.
There’s no need to list yet again the many problems the Catholic Church in Ireland has to face but having a party, no matter how enjoyable it might be with Francis at the heart of it, is hardly the answer to them. Worse still it would simply be a camouflage, a papering over the cracks, a distraction from the issues we need to face.
Much better if Francis was to thank the politicians and the churchmen for their generous invitation but that he can’t come because he’s otherwise engaged. Much better if he were to tell the Irish bishops that they need to get on with what they should be doing and not waste time and money and energy on another jamboree.
The biggest problem the Irish Church has is that its leaders refuse to engage with the real issues and insist on deflecting attention from the incontrovertible realities of Irish Church life.
Let me give just one example. In 20 years time most priests in Ireland will be over 70, with some over 60 and hardly anyone under 50. That’s not an opinion. That’s what we get if we crunch the available figures. And what’s the official antidote: encourage male celibate vocations!
That’s what I mean when I say that we need to cut through the unreality of imagining that policies that have failed and can be seen to have failed are being re-hashed and re-proposed as if they are the answer when they’re just part of the problem.
The key problem is not a lack of faith on the part of the people – the current episcopal response to every problem. The key problem is that, despite the fact that Pope Francis is encouraging them to find their voice, the Irish bishops are still looking over their shoulders to Rome.
So who should be surprised that we will remain in crisis-mode if we refuse to face reality and distract ourselves with the vague hope that a visit from the pope will solve anything?
The very last thing the Irish Church needs is a visit from the pope.